The Environment Act: putting focus on reuse and recycling

Home Articles The Environment Act: putting focus on reuse and recycling

Great strides have been made in recent years to move away from single-use products, creating a more sustainable sector that provides a genuine alternative to the end consumer.

Despite the level of innovation being seen across the packaging world, the job of creating a more environmentally-friendly approach is far from over. The introduction of the Environment Act, which came into force earlier this month, demonstrates the need for packaging manufacturers to keep their foot firmly on the peddle, as we continue to move away from the current ‘take-make-use-dispose’ mentality.

The Act lays very clear groundwork for future regulations to come into force – rules that will undoubtedly affect every stage of a product’s (and its packaging) lifecycle. The Government’s intention is to encourage reuse and recycling, with potential penalties for those who fail to comply. As a result, the challenge for packaging manufacturers, particularly those that have yet to embrace the green agenda, will be to implement procedures which allow packaging to be re-purposed, redistributed, or reused once sent to a consumer or third party.

So what does the long-awaited Environment Act tell us? The wide-ranging piece of legislation, which has implications far broader than its name may suggest, was designed to bridge a perceived environmental gap following Brexit and place the UK Government’s 25-year Environmental Plan on a statutory footing.

It’s split into two halves: a legal framework for environmental governance; and specific provisions for the environment, split into eight discrete parts. These include provisions relating to environmental protection, waste efficiency and the regulation of chemicals.

Aside from requirements for the Secretary of State to produce an Environmental Improvement Plan, long-term targets for the natural environment, as well as the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection (‘OEP’), it’s the specific provisions relating to waste and resource efficiency that are likely to have material and significant implications on the majority of packaging businesses going forwards. However, what the Act lacks is detail and defers specifics to future regulations and statutory instruments.

For example, the ‘polluter pays’ principle is generally understood to mean that those who produce pollution should pay for its safe disposal and any environmental damage it causes. The Environment Act takes this one step further by making provisions which would impose the full net costs of managing these items at the point of disposal, whether that’s through re-use, recycling, recovery or redistribution.

By extending the parameters of ‘disposal costs’ to include those incurred in the collection and transportation of goods, the provisions effectively shift the costs of disposal from the consumer back to the ‘polluter.’

The Act also makes provision to impose producer responsibility obligations on “specified persons”. Much will depend on the scope and extent of future regulations, but this provision could have a seismic impact on packaging manufacturers, even in respect of those materials which are not considered to be harmful to the environment, such as cardboard and paper packaging.

The ultimate aim of extending the ‘polluter pay’ principle is to encourage the production of items which can be sustained for longer and at a lower cost. By imposing additional obligations on producers to reuse, redistribute and recycle their products and packaging, the Government hopes that it may incentivise companies to design products that last longer, which can be reused and repaired more easily, and ultimately recycled at the end of their life.

Another important aspect of the Act is the part it will play in the Government’s ‘war on plastic’ and its desire to avoid all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 – a fight familiar to the packaging sector. These include provisions for a similar levy to the plastic carrier bag charge for other single-use plastic items, such as the introduction of a deposit return schemes to either sustain, promote or secure an increase in the recycling and reuse of materials.

It’s not yet clear what types of packaging may be caught up by the Act and any future regulations, but it’s essential for all businesses within the sector to start thinking about how they will respond if one of their key items of packaging is prevented from becoming waste, or cost sanctions are imposed for its continued use. Adopting a pre-emptive approach will save considerable time, costs and potential headaches further down the track and ensure packaging manufacturers stay on course in the move away from the current ‘take-make-use-dispose’ mentality.

Source: Packaging News. Bill Dunkerley is a regulatory lawyer and director at Pannone Corporate

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